Dear Mr. Orr,
I’m quite upset to read that Christie’s auction house is appraising the collection at my museum.
My museum. I not only refer to the Detroit Institute of Arts as my museum because I helped pass the millage to keep it going, but because I’ve been a member of the DIA for a very long time. I think it was 1977 when I was going to the College of Art and Design downtown Detroit, and my sister was attending Wayne State. We toddled into the art institute and asked if we couldn’t get a family membership, even though we were sisters and not a husband, wife, and children. This level of membership afforded us more free passes than two student memberships, so we could invite friends easily. The museum happily sold us the family membership. I have been a member of the DIA ever since, sometimes a cheaper individual member, sometimes a little higher level, depending on my finances, but I’ve always been a member.
I don’t so much consider Graham Beal the director of the DIA, as I do the absolutely amazing man that takes care of my museum. I visit it often, though not as often as I’d like. Our art museum is a treasure on a level you won’t often find. I am astounded at how user-friendly it is, the many provided explanations of the works, as well ways they give you to think about what you’ve seen. The DIA is a gem.
We have phenomenal collections. Have you visited the Islamic galleries? Astounding. Wander through our African collection, or the amazing American Indian section. You will be transported. You will be transformed. This is a world class museum right in our town.
Why is Christie’s appraising my collection? There is much talk, of course, of possibly selling some of it off. It is a vast collection; the city is in desperate need of money.
I’m hoping I can explain to you what an outrage it would be to touch even a small part of my collection. The Detroit Institute of Arts is like my daughter, I’ve watched her grow. She is magnificent. She is affordable, easy to visit, welcoming, and exquisite. She embodies Detroit, reaching out to the diversity of the city. I can’t help thinking “Go ahead, have her appraised, take stock. But so help me, if you touch one golden hair on her head…”
I’ve heard it said “Certainly not every piece is important? Surely we can get by with a few less wonders?” Let’s pick one. Let’s pick Howdy Doody. Howdy Doody is a very important puppet, but a puppet none-the-less. Who’s going to care? What about a grandfather who takes his grandchild to the museum and tells the child what Howdy Doody Time meant to him. Perhaps, when they get home, they get on the internet and look up some old videos of Mr. Doody, along with Muppet videos, and Chinese theater, and the child starts a lifelong interest, perhaps a career, in puppetry. These things could, and do, happen every day. Education is one of the purposes of museums.
Or we can sell Howdy Doody to a collector. We get a good price. No matter how good, we know that will be a drop in the enormous bucket of Detroit debt. Mr. Doody is another casualty of the corruption of Detroit, the children of city have no chance to see him, and Howdy Doody spends his remaining days in a private collection, oohed and ahhed over by the collector’s rich friends. I know, there are many images and videos of Howdy Doody, but to see a work of art, any work of art, in front of you, right there, that the artist touched, struggled, and sweated over, this is far more important than money. Every piece removed from the museum is a missed opportunity.
Great civilizations are known by their art. The wonders of the pyramids, the statues of Greece, these are what life is made of. We are keepers of such works, and the inspiration for the art that will become our own legacy.
Know that every piece matters, greatly. Certainly we all have works we don’t care if we ever see again. I spent many years in retail working at a picture frame shop, and I framed posters of Bouguereau’s The Nut Gatherers more times than you can imagine. I certainly wouldn’t mind if I never saw that piece again. Yet is one of our greatest treasures, loved and visited by millions. That image alone brings people to Detroit.
I tell you this because I want you to understand that the small nonsensical slips of paper on display from the Fluxus group mean more to some of us than some of the great works considered masterpieces. Consequently, judgments of value cannot be made. Who has the right? Neither you, nor Christie’s, nor anyone else can decide what to sell out of my museum. To rape the Detroit Institute of Arts is to destroy Detroit’s greatest treasure. It will surely drive another nail in the coffin of Detroit. DO NOT touch my museum!